Josiah Wedgwood and the Short-sightedness of Self-publishing

Josiah Wedgwood

Josiah Wedgwood (12 July 1730 – 3 January 1795) is credited with inventing direct mail, money-back guarantees, the traveling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, illustrated catalogues, and the ceramic known as Jasper. As if to taunt us, he did most of this after his right leg had been amputated.

The option to self-publish in the present climate is tempting. No pesky agents doing who-knows-what for 15% of the ever-diminishing pie. No book covers designed by jury. No editors demanding a more ‘likable’ narrator. You, the writer, keep almost all the profits (except those you share with Amazon or iTunes for the labor intensive processing of credit cards). Plus, it’s easier. You simply type a few hundred pages, give iTunes, Smashwords or Amazon your credit card and click “Publish.” As one finishes up a novel, and begins the arguably more difficult task of selling it, self-publishing looks almost perfect.

In 1859, Josiah’s grandson, Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882), wrote the Origin of Species which was the argument for the Theory of Evolution. One of the reasons Mr. Darwin was able to write the book was because his grandfather had been ridiculously successful and left his heirs enough money to do things like travel to unknown lands, dream, and write books (Note: at the time of writing this, over half of America still believes in the Theory of Evolution and genetics).

Josiah was born in the sleepy little town of Burslem, which is about 50 miles from Manchester, where he started his first pottery factory, Ivy Works, in 1754. Over the next 40 years, he revolutionized pottery manufacturing and transformed Burslem into a thriving town and the international center of operations. During his lifetime, Wedgwood pottery was commissioned by British nobility and Empress Catherine of Russia, but his real achievement was creating affordable quality pottery for the masses. Unless you’re of the 1% and you shop in Antiquity, you can probably thank Josiah for every saucer, cup, plate, and vase in your home. Part of his secret was to take a process that was previously done by a single person (a potter) and break it down into dozens of highly-specialized tasks, making the whole process faster, predictable, and drastically more affordable. Individuals became experts at managing the kiln, at glazing, and at a technique in pottery called ‘dancing’. They were able to efficiently produce, sell, and distribute amazing products that were previously only available to nobility.

Modern-day technology definitely simplifies many of the tasks previously necessary to publish a book, but we are being insanely short-sighted to think that I, the author, am the best person to find the right editor, broker the best deal, design, produce, advertise like the professionals, and ultimately sell the book. There is huge room for improvement in all these areas, but asking these tasks to be owned by the same person who sat in her basement for years and years and actually wrote the book is short-sighted. The people taking it on the chin right now, publishers, bookstores, even agents, are highly specialized professionals who not only do the things I don’t want to do as an artist, they do it 10 times better than I ever will. In a climate that gets more and more competitive every year, I want to be on a team that is part of the next revolutionary wave in publishing rather than an individual laboring to master each individual step of the process.


If you have an opinion differing from this post, we’d love to hear it.


[Correction 4/22: The original article said that Josiah’s left leg had been amputated. It was actually his right leg. We’re grateful to Edmund Zagorin for pointing this out. ]

Michael FitzGerald

Michael lives in Missoula, MT, with his wife and two sons. He’s the CEO and one of the founders of Submittable and the author of the novel Radiant Days.